Zen on the Ridge

A challenging Hawai‘i Loa Ridge spot proves to be the perfect catalyst for a low-key, Japanese-style home for this Chicago couple.

After years of living through Chicago’s cold and often forbidding winters, this couple was ready for a warm and breezy retirement in Hawai‘i. To make sure it would be just what they wanted, they spent a couple of years searching O‘ahu for the perfect house. Nothing seemed quite right, save for one trim house in Kahala. When the offer they put in didn’t pan out, the couple was left with an epiphany: Why not get the architect of that house to design something especially for them?

Realtor Margaret Murchie tracked down their man: Sydney Snyder, of Ossipoff, Snyder and Rowland. Architect retained, the couple began a new search, this time for bare lots upon which to build. This time, they were successful, finding a lot high on Hawai‘i Loa Ridge. Despite its prestigious neighborhood, the lot wasn’t a conventionally desirable parcel. In fact, it was an irregularly shaped key lot with uneven terrain, set back from the street down a steep driveway. But where others saw drawbacks, these shoppers saw privacy and a killer view.

Snyder had his work cut out for him, but luckily his clients wanted a relatively small—no more than 3,000 square feet—low-key home. Recalls the wife, “We didn’t want something you would get in Chicago. We weren’t moving out here to live in a huge, closed-up house.”

The front door contains paper sandwiched between glass, simulating a shoji screen while remaining sturdy.

At the owners’ request, Snyder created a Japanese-inspired aesthetic for the home: shoji-screen-style doors and ceilings, simple mahogany wood trim, richly colored chocolate heart wood floors and a central courtyard with a concise, well-kept garden. But the real Zen of the design is in the layout, in the way the house has been harmonized to its demanding lot. “I think the Japanese are more respectful to a site, in a historical context,” Snyder says. “And I think we did the same. It’s a very toned-down house. It fits close to the hill, and doesn’t push itself in your face.”

Rather than trying to concoct an imposing front entrance at the bottom of the long driveway, Snyder flipped the orientation of the house around to face the makai view of Diamond Head. As a result, you hardly notice the house until you’re already inside it. “I like the way it unfolds,” says Snyder. “You come down the driveway and see nothing, practically. You park and come through the inner garden, which is still quiet. And even when you come through the front door, you’re still not getting the full impact of the house.”

The house clings to the terrain, stepping down the hill in several levels instead of relying on stilts for an artificially flat layout. Snyder says, “I wanted the house to feel grounded, so it needed to descend with the ground somewhat.”

The dining room and study, for example, just to the right of the front door, look down over the living room and lanai areas. This creates an interesting multilevel relationship between the two spaces, as well as paying off in unexpected ways. Even from the mauka side of the house, diners have a perfectly framed view of Diamond Head, thanks to their higher elevation.

Guest rooms are tucked along the side of the courtyard and at the bottom of the property, fronting a lap pool that does double duty as a retaining wall for the entire structure.

The layout of the house emphasizes the common areas at its center, leaving the bedrooms and other private areas minimized at the perimeter. It’s a design that reflects a lifestyle philosophy of the owners. “So many of the houses you look at are just a collection of large bedrooms, all together,” says the wife. “Really, when you’re just two adults, you want other things, other areas.”

Japanese touches abound—from shoji-screen-style accents to the perfectly manicured garden in the central courtyard.

The owners were willing to follow through on this approach to living; in fact, the master bedroom ended up measuring just 12 by 12 feet, a rare decision for a house of this kind. “We felt that we weren’t going to live in our bedroom, so we used that space through the rest of the house,” says the husband.

In consequence, much thought was put into making the central area livable. No sense robbing the bedrooms to create awkward or rarely used spaces. The dining room, an area which often sits empty in other homes, was combined with the study and the library, turning it into one of the most used rooms of the house. The feeling of sitting down at the dining room table, surrounded by books and antique curios, and looking out onto the ocean view, is hard to beat.

The devil is in the details, of course. To provide the right kind of illumination for this dual-purpose room, Snyder designed a large skylight coupled with a louvered ceiling below it. “I wanted to funnel light directly onto the dining table, but to avoid just a single shaft coming down, so the louvered section helps distribute the light through the rest of the room,” says Snyder. The result is bright enough for reading and working, and warm enough for eating and socializing.

A lowered ceiling diffuses sunlight from the skylight above.

When the owners or their guests are ready for some personal time, the segmented layout of the home, combined with its solid, concrete block construction, allows for privacy even within the house. The wife says it’s almost possible to forget they have house guests sometimes. “I can have my daughter here, and my mother. We’ll be spread all over the house and you don’t hear anyone,” she says.

The tight confines of the lot also necessitated some clever design within individual rooms. The master bathroom, for example, is set up right against the mauka property line. “We wanted it to be open, but didn’t want it to feel like a hole dug out of the ground, which it really is,” says Snyder. “I couldn’t simply put a window there, because it would have been at grade or below it.”

A small strip of garden disguises the fact that the bathroom is right against the property line.

The solution? Snyder created a small strip of garden in an open alcove outside the shower and bath areas, separated by a large picture window. The effect is both airy and private, the high alcove wall disguising the fact that there’s no view beyond it, only the rock face of the property’s boundary.

Ironically, it was the difficult key lot that forced Snyder and the owners to come up with a much more interesting house than they might otherwise have imagined. “I give the [owners] a lot of credit,” says Snyder. “They were sympathetic to letting the lot dictate some of the design choices. Which wouldn’t be the typical situation in a place like Chicago. There, everything’s flat, and you’re more worried about which side of the house the ice storms are going to hit.”

“The easy lots on Hawai‘i Loa Ridge have been picked off a long time ago,” Snyder points out. “But look at what gets put on those lots: big, easy boxes.”

All in all, the owners ended up spending $1.5 million in the design and construction of their retirement haven. Money well spent—the owners say that in the time they’ve been living in the house, it’s proved to be a perfect complement to their lifestyle—full of character, without sacrificing the conveniences of modern living.